I was asked about the use of certain “games” in the US with young soccer players such as Stuck in the Mud, Red Light Green Light or Shark and Minnows. The thoughts below do not represent an in depth study of the situation, these are just “thoughts.”
The Strider or Balance Bike is a product that was created to help kids learn how to balance and steer without the additional concern of using pedals. Although it is not a “real bike,” it can make the process of learning balance more joyous than the use/removal of training wheels. Despite training wheels being used for generations, it may inhibit the actual desired outcome. The learner’s reliance on the training wheels keeps them from learning how to counter steer which means they must almost “relearn” how to ride. Finally the strider bike can also be used as a learning tool largely independently from direct supervision. A child learning to balance on a standard bike requires help from someone. Children are not small adults. Their needs are quite different but in the beginning, the strider bike was derided because it wasn’t a “real bike.”
Kids need to enjoy what they are doing. As they begin playing soccer, FUN is paramount to their desire to continue playing. Most players in the US do not grow up in a house where soccer is reinforced as a “way of life.” It is an organized activity that they are introduced to as part of some programming. For their parents, it can be a form of exercise for the child or even a cheap “childcare.” Although youth programs exist throughout the world, there is also cultural norm of individual or “street play.” Games like the ones listed above are intended to create a fun environment to learn skills. Elsewhere in the world, the development of skills is part of a cultural ratchet that values skill acquisition. Often through “unorganized” play, peer groups will create an environment where fun and skill acquisition go hand in hand.
There is nothing inherently wrong with playing fun games like Sharks and Minnows with young players. Much like using training wheels, it is a viable strategy. It can add fun to soccer for kids who are not already invested in the game. The issue is that many kids/parents are looking for a fun activity rather than specifically soccer fun. Therefore a disconnect happens when, “it’s just not fun anymore.” This can happen at any point in a player’s development. Learning to play chess, the flute, basketball, monopoly, etc. are worthwhile pursuits for young people. Only a small number of people will make it a lifelong pursuit.
Being honest with ourselves about why we are doing something is a crucial component to any endeavor. Playing monopoly with a 6 year old in order to instill a love of real estate investment is a strategy. However at some point the real thing doesn’t match up with the game. That first encounter is most likely not going to be the crucial component to a lifelong love. There will be milestones along the way that will either add or subtract to the child’s love for the activity. Having kids dip their carrots in ranch dressing is fine but at a certain point, the carrots need to stand on their own.
For me, soccer is a lifelong passion that speaks to me on a variety of levels. For some of my childhood friends, it is a game that they used to play when they were a kid. We spent years with undereducated coaches doing many poorly thought out drills by modern pedagogical standards. They did the best that they could with what they knew and got at least one lifelong convert. The strider bike may be the best possible way to get the intended objective but the training wheels still work. Neither guarantee that a kid will grow up to love bike riding.
The game is all about people. While I’m all for best practices, curricula and methodology; they do not guarantee anything. A kid needs to enjoy what they are doing enough to continue. More than likely, they need to see others enjoying that same thing. So if you are a coach, display your joy for the game! While we all might love soccer, joy is happiness that kids can see. That’s worth more than any activity that you’ll ever run for any age group!
“Football is life!” – Danny Rojas from Ted Lasso